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Averting a Latin
American Nuclear
Arms Race

New Prospects and Challenges for
Argentine-Brazilian Nuclear Cooperation

Edited by

Paul L. Leventhal and
Sharon Tanzer
Nuclear Control Institute
Washington, DC

in association with the

Washington, DC


There have been few bright spots in the decades-old, uphill struggle to halt the growth of established nuclear arsenals and to stop the spread of new ones. Nuclear non-proliferation can be a very discouraging business. Thus, it is especially noteworthy when a region troubled by nuclear rivalry - in this case Latin America - beats all the odds and makes a breakthrough toward averting an arms race that most experts regarded as inevitable.

That is what happened on 28 November 1990 when the presidents of Argentina and Brazil met at Foz de Iguacu - the majestic Iguacu. Falls marking the spot where the boundaries of their two nations meet. There they signed an accord renouncing the development of nuclear weapons and setting forth a number of no-nonsense approaches to assuring one another that their nuclear establishments are living up to the commitment.

It was a stunning renunciation of military control of the nuclear programmes in both nations. Indeed, it was the first clear sign that the transition from military to civilian rule - which took place in 1983 in Argentina and in 1985 in Brazil - had finally been extended to the nuclear sphere.

Only a year earlier, at a conference held in Montevideo, in neighbouring Uruguay, there was resistance, often passionately expressed, by leading Brazilian and Argentine nuclear figures to a number of proposals for reciprocal inspections, international safeguards arrangements, a test ban, and other measures to avert a regional nuclear arms race. The proposals were put forward by a number of US experts assembled by the conference organizer, the Washington-based Nuclear Control Institute, a private, independent, non-proliferation research centre.

At the same time, there was the scent of change in the air as it became apparent from conference discussions that the two nations now found it in their mutual interest to pursue the difficult process of ending 150 years of mutual suspicion. That interest was expressed in a number of ways by participants, all suggesting a new, common awareness that Argentina and Brazil must achieve greater integration of their economic and security interests if they are to be successful in managing their affairs at home and ill projecting power and influence outside the region.

It is particularly significant, therefore, that the two presidents announced all agreement that effectively places the normalizing of nuclear relations high on the list of matters to be resolved. They agreed to work out a system of reciprocal inspections of each other's nuclear facilities, to be complemented by international inspections of all their plants to verify the findings. They also agreed to ban nuclear explosions and to bring into force a regional nuclear non-proliferation treaty, the Treaty of Tlatelolco, that had been a dead letter for more than 20 years because of their refusal to adhere to it.

This book presents the conference that provided the first open discussion of the new approaches reflected in this historic nuclear agreement. The conference discussions are summarized in Chapter 1. Formal presentations and panelists' responses are presented in subsequent chapters. These exchanges are significant not only for identifying the problems and the mindset that had to be overcome to reach the agreement but also for identifying the pitfalls to be avoided in its implementation. A number of the papers were originally presented in Spanish or Portuguese and have been translated into English with minimal editing on an ad verbatim basis.

At the conference, 'Latin American Nuclear Cooperation: Prospects and Challenges,' nuclear leaders from Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay met for three days (11-13 October 1989) with an independent group of experts from the United States to discuss a number of difficult issues. These were issues that had fuelled nuclear rivalry in the region and had bedevilled non-proliferation diplomacy with the US and other outside powers over the past two decades. Indeed, at times the conference seemed to serve as a catharsis for sharply conflicting views, making possible constructive exchanges of ideas and information after the air had cleared.

Among the issues addressed were the following:

Differences over these issues had proven intractable in the past. But the conference was intended to build upon progress recently made. Argentina and Brazil had begun to resolve differences between themselves and with the United States and, in particular, to make their nuclear programmes more 'transparent' to one another.

The question yet to be answered was whether they could find a formula, not tied to the NPT but still compatible with the global non-proliferation regime, that would provide concrete assurances that their nuclear activities were peaceful.

The Institute received encouragement and assistance from two prominent research organizations, the Argentine Council on International Relations (CARO) and the Brazilian Institute for the Study of International Relations (IPRI) - each with close ties to the Foreign Ministry in its respective country. CARI and IPRI formally endorsed the conference, and their representatives helped in the development of the programme, the selection of experts, and themselves participated in the meeting.

The stage for the conference had been set by remarkable progress made toward normalizing nuclear relations over the previous four years by President Raul Alfonsin of Argentina and President Jose Sarney of Brazil - the first civilian leaders after years of military rule in both countries.

Following an agreement in 1985 to begin exploring approaches to closer nuclear cooperation, they took turns making 'friendly visits' to the other's most sensitive nuclear facilities - the uranium enrichment and plutonium separation plants. The visits were mostly symbolic - no secret details on plant design or materials inventories were exchanged. They were significant nonetheless because these plants represented the cutting edge of the Argentine-Brazilian nuclear competition, and the visits were the result of careful preparations by a joint working group under the auspices of the foreign ministries. By 1988, the working group had been elevated to a permanent committee, and a committee of Brazilian and Argentine nuclear industrialists was also formed to 'promote the integration' of their industries.

With the objective of building upon this momentum, the Nuclear Control Institute organized the Montevideo conference to explore specific ways in which the growing nuclear cooperation between Brazil and Argentina could evolve into formal arrangements of lasting value to regional and global nuclear non-proliferation efforts. The conference was a follow-on to a smaller meeting, held in May of 1988 in Buenos Aires at the invitation of CARI, at which the findings of the Institute's International Task Force on Prevention of Nuclear Terrorism were presented and discussed. It was agreed at that session that a larger meeting should be planned to explore a wider range of Latin American nuclear issues.

As the papers and discussions in this book make clear, Argentina and Brazil seem prepared to normalize their nuclear relations, but they strongly resist outside advice on how to go about it. Especially sensitive is the question of making their peaceful nuclear intentions subject to verification by outside parties. A number of Argentine and Brazilian participants refused to acknowledge that any form of inspection or verification was needed; mutual trust, they argued, was sufficient. The long history of US intervention in Latin America - and, in particular, the 'policy of denial' that has governed US nuclear trade and non-proliferation efforts in the region - has left scars that were all too evident at the conference.

A Brazilian participant, responding to proposals made by US safeguards and verification experts for strict measures to confirm the absence of nuclear weapons activities, likened such suggestions to advice that a friend might give to a happily married man who trusts his wife: line up a divorce lawyer and a private detective in advance just in case your wife proves to be unfaithful. An American participant responded with an analogy of his own: Argentina and Brazil exempting themselves from full-scope safeguards was like two passengers about to board a crowded plane who refuse to put their hand luggage through an X-ray machine because they worked out a private arrangement to trust one another.

A few Brazilian participants who were not in the government expressed scepticism about the peaceful nature of the Brazilian nuclear programme and about the motives of Brazil and Argentina in normalizing nuclear relations. They argued that in the absence of an effective domestic safe- guards system with full accounting of nuclear activities and materials to the Brazilian Congress, there was no way to know whether the nuclear pro- gramme run by Brazil's Navy included weapons activities. One Brazilian asserted that nuclear cooperation between Argentina and Brazil should be seen as an effort to build trust between their military commands - a form of deterrence - and to build a common front against outside efforts to prevent them from developing their autonomous nuclear capabilities.

These assertions were vigorously disputed by representatives of the Brazilian government and atomic energy programme, who denied any weapons activities and advocated mutual trust as the basis of Argentine- Brazilian nuclear cooperation. They strongly resisted suggestions by American participants for the application of intrusive measures based on existing models - international safeguards as applied within the European Community and bilateral verification as applied by the US and the USSR under the INF (Intermediate Nuclear Forces) elimination agreement. Indeed, one Brazilian branded as 'neo-colonialist' an American suggestion that a bilateral arrangement should have three elements - on-site inspection, surveillance by aircraft or satellite, and third-party verification.

There were also strongly contending views on whether production of weapons-grade materials - highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium - was prudent or necessary, even under safeguards arrange- ments. One American asserted that safeguards were not too intrusive, as suggested by some Brazilian and Argentine speakers, but too 'slow,' making undetected diversions of bomb materials a real possibility. For that reason, he said, it was dangerous to have unhampered use of these materials.

Some Argentine and Brazilian participants regarded such suggestions as evidence that the United States and other outside powers sought to maintain a monopoly over the technology for producing these materials and over the materials themselves. One American asserted that such materials have proven to be uneconomical and unnecessary in power and research programmes elsewhere and, since Brazil and Argentina are not known to have produced these materials yet in significant quantities, Latin America still could be spared the burden of protecting and accounting for them if production were suspended.

The production of enriched uranium to fuel nuclear submarines being developed by Brazil was discussed in the larger context of whether nuclear submarines contribute to nuclear weapons proliferation. It was noted that only the United States and the United Kingdom are known to use highly enriched, bomb-grade uranium as submarine fuel; France and the Soviet Union are understood to use lower-enriched uranium unsuitable for weapons in at least some of their submarines. Although Brazilian participants did not discuss the level of enrichment of fuel being developed for submarines, there have been official Brazilian statements indicating it would not be highly enriched.

One problem, however, is that low-enriched uranium can be further enriched to weapons grade. Under the NPT, use of submarine and other naval-propulsion fuel is a 'non-proscribed military activity' permitting removal of the fuel from safeguards. Such an arrangement is likely to be included in any non-NPT safeguards arrangement worked out between Argentina and Brazil, as well. Nonetheless, most conference participants regarded a conventionally armed nuclear attack submarine, compared with a nuclear weapon, as the lesser of two evils - or, as an American expert put it, 'Better a sub under the sea than a bomb in the basement.' In any event, conference discussions indicated that an operational Brazilian nuclear submarine was at least 10 to 20 years away and that the Argentine programme has been suspended for cost reasons.

There was also general agreement among participants that another matter of potential proliferation concern - so-called 'peaceful nuclear explosions' - made no economic sense and could be banned from the region. There was general support from Argentine and Brazilian participants to a suggestion by an American conferee that the two nations agree to a bilateral comprehensive test ban and challenge the superpowers to join.

The issue of nuclear explosions was also seen as significant to the question of Brazilian and Argentine ratification of the Treaty of Tlatelolco in lieu of the NPT. The Tlatelolco Treaty, by some interpretations, permits the explosion of indigenously developed nuclear devices, which from a technical standpoint are indistinguishable from nuclear weapons. For this reason, outside industrial nations have not accepted the treaty as the basis for technology transfers; nor has the IAEA approved safeguards agreements based on the treaty. There was discussion of the possibility of modifying the Tlatelolco Treaty to bar test explosions as part of the process of Argentina and Brazil ratifying it.

Although there was strong support among Brazilian and Argentine participants for this regional non-proliferation accord, several of them expressed strong opposition to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and to the global NPT safeguards regime. They described the NPT as discriminatory for locking in the monopoly of the nuclear-weapon states - 'disarming the disarmed', as one Argentine diplomat expressed it. They also objected to other asymmetries: full-scope safeguards required of non-weapon states while the nuclear-weapon states are free to operate unsafeguarded plants; deployment of US and Soviet nuclear weapons in non-weapon states in Europe - 'geographical' or 'indirect' proliferation, as it was variously described.

Another sore point was the denial of nuclear technology by advanced industrial states to certain non-weapon states party to the Treaty even though the NPT provides for non-discriminatory transfers among Treaty parties. Some Argentine and Brazilian participants were doubtful that their nations would qualify for certain transfers even if they were to ratify the NPT.

American participants noted that technology transfers applicable to pro- duction of weapons-usable plutonium and enriched uranium would pose a problem anywhere. Transfers related to power and research programmes utilizing non-weapons-usable materials should not be a problem, they said. They were also generally sympathetic with criticisms that the United States and the Soviet Union could do more to meet their obligations under the NPT to end the nuclear arms race - in particular, by halting nuclear testing and any further production of nuclear-weapon materials.

In any event, the discussions concentrated on the feasibility of developing an effective regional non-proliferation regime outside the NPT context. And, in this regard, the beat produced in the discussions generated some light. Proposals put on the table relating to safeguards and verification, to nuclear explosions and the Tlatelolco Treaty, are reflected in the agreement signed at Foz de Iguacu by Presidents Carlos Menem of Argentina and Fernando Collor of Brazil - the elected civilian successors to Presidents Alfonsin and Sarney respectively.

It is easy to be cynical and dismiss the progress made as merely kow-towing to the United States, Germany and other nuclear suppliers that now demand full-scope safeguards as a condition of supply. Some might even see the potential for an Argentine-Brazilian condominium to secretly produce and confront the world with nuclear weapons. On the other hand, it is important to consider the potential for enlightened self-interest that could transform Latin America into a region permanently free of nuclear weapons and could serve as a model for other regions, like South Asia and the Middle East, now troubled by dangerous nuclear rivalries. It is our hope, and our purpose in producing this book, that enlightened self-interest will prevail.


1992 Nuclear Control Institute. All Rights Reserved.

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